Oral history project conducted in 1989 by Glasgow Museums with eight former workers in the Clydeside shipbuilding industry. The project documents, from the workers' own perspectives, life in Glasgow's shipbuilding industry in the 1930s and 1940s, and includes their recollections of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Based along the river Clyde in the west of Scotland, the Glasgow shipbuilding industry grew dramatically in the late 19th century, becoming one of the world's major centres of shipbuilding construction, employing tens of thousands of people in a host of different firms, constructing ocean liners, steamships and battleships, for export around the world. At the turn of the 20th century, Glasgow was responsible for a large proportion of the world's ship production. After suffering a severe downturn during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Glasgow shipbuilding industry went into terminal decline in the post-war decades, and by the 1990s was at a fraction of its former capacity.
The interviewees held the following occupations within the shipbuilding industry:
- 2 x shipyard blacksmith
- 2 x shipwright
- ship's plumber
- marine engineer
In addition, one of the interviewees (Pat McChrystal) describes in detail a myriad of other roles, and the overall process of ship construction.
The interviews reference a range of shipbuilding companies on the Clyde, including Fairfields, Alexander Stephen & Sons, and Harland & Wolff. As most interviewees spent most of their working lives in the industry, interviews chart the career trajectories of workers, often involving changes of role and employer, including time spent in the broader industrial marine ecology of the Clyde, such as the merchant navy and ship repairers. Comments are also made on wages, hours of work, the hierarchy within jobs, and differences in skilled/semi-skilled labour.
Most of the interviewees started their working lives in the 1930s and 1940s in the shipyards. Although the interviewees talk about their working lives across the decades, most of the specific detail focuses on their experiences in the yards in the 1930s and 1940s. The impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s is a notable feature of the material, and this period's effect on the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde is described. In particular, the interviewees outline the personal impact of the collapse in shipbuilding, describing the impact of periods of prolonged unemployment. The development of cycling and hostelling around Scotland as a popular leisure activity for unemployed men in the 1930s is also featured.
One interview is with Andy McMahon, a former shipbuilder, who was also the Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Govan, between 1979 and 1983. Leaving school at 14, McMahon became an apprentice in the Fairfield shipyard in the early 1930s and later became a trade union shop steward. McMahon describes his periods of unemployment during the depression of the 1930s, and details his emerging political consciousness in the shipyards in this period, which included membership of the Communist Party and being blacklisted for political activism.
The interviews cover the entrance of the worker into the shipbuilding industry, which was typically on leaving school, aged 14 or 15. The interviewees discuss parental attitudes towards employment, as well as the influence of fathers - who typically were also employed in the shipyards - in securing work. All entrants to the shipyards underwent a 5 year apprenticeship, leading to a skilled trade, and this apprenticeship period is heavily described in the material, including entrance examinations, rival gang fights, an apprentice strike in the 1930s, and the impact of the Great Depression.
The interviews also document everyday experiences in the workplace environment. There is material on interviewees' day-to-day routines, detailing the challenges and tasks required by specific roles within the shipbuilding process, often going into detail regarding specific industrial techniques, typically involving skilled manual labour. Interviews also cover the various tools and equipment used to perform specific roles, and comment is often made on the provision and availability of tools. Interviewees frequently discuss how they were expected to make their own tools. The impact of new technology in the shipbuilding industry is also touched upon.
The interviews also provide details of the working conditions in the shipyards. Interviewees often describe the conditions of the shipyards which they encountered on leaving school and starting work there. Frequent comment is made on the physical conditions of life in the shipyards (noise levels, extreme heat, working outdoors in winter etc), the provision of specialist equipment (or lack of), and the various strategies adopted to ameliorate demanding conditions. The sheer physical demands of the work is often commented on, and the provision of on-site facilities (eg. canteens, toilets) - or lack of - is also outlined. Interviews also cover the health and safety procedures (or lack of) in the shipyards, describing workplace accidents, workplace risks to injury, and exposure to hazardous substances, including asbestos.
The interviews also document industrial relations within the shipyards. Interviewees discuss their relationships with management, the distinct dress codes of different groups, and management attitudes towards workers. Interviewees also outline their relationships with foremen, who were responsible for day-to-day oversight of ship workers, described by one interviewee as "very powerful". Discussion also takes place on workplace discipline, and penalties for infringements. Interviews also feature material on the development of trade union activity in the shipyards, as well as the campaigns for improved wages and conditions in the 1930s. Workers also discuss their myriad grievances in relation to their working conditions: no teabreaks, low wages, no pension, no holiday pay, lack of tools, "hire and fire" culture. Some interviewees also reference Catholic/Protestant relations in the shipyards, detailing practices of discrimination and sectarian attitudes.
Some of the interviews feature life in the shipyards during WWII. Interviewees discuss the "boom time" of the industry, the changing focus towards warships and merchant fleet, and the new influx of people into shipbuilding. In particular, comment is made on the arrival of women workers in the shipyards during WWII, undertaking traditionally male roles.